Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (622)
His Excellency the (former) minister
In a cabinet reshuffle in 1937, the removal of one minister was given the most attention while another took his dismissal grievances to the press. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk describes the aftermath of a shake-up
Mahmoud Ghalib Pasha
During the summer of 1937, Al-Ahram took on the unique role of serving as battlefield to a skirmish that most historical writings have overlooked. The mêlée occurred following the Wafd cabinet reshuffle in early August, in which four ministers were booted out -- minister of transportation Mahmoud Fahmi El-Nuqrashi Effendi, minister of justice Mahmoud Ghalib Pasha, Minister of Waqf (religious endowments) Mohamed Safwat Pasha, and war and naval minister Ali Fahmi Pasha.
Researchers of the history of Egyptian governments and the nationalist movement have focussed on the removal of El-Nuqrashi Effendi without showing much interest in the other three pashas. El-Nuqrashi was known as one of the major leaders of the national movement and represented, alongside his colleague Ahmed Maher, the extremist wing of the Wafd Party. At one point, the two of them were accused in cases of assassination that brought them to trial. While they were cleared as innocent, they were also characterised by the British mandate headquarters as "extremists", and for a short time were barred from assuming official posts.
It can be said that historians have taken an interest in El-Nuqrashi's ousting due to its causing the deepest schism in the history of the Wafd Party, itself a sign that its ranks had begun to weaken. In contrast, historians have largely overlooked the dismissal of the other three ministers on the basis that their administrative role was stronger than their political presence, for none of them had an illustrious nationalist past. Another reason for their disregard was that they were removed from the cabinet not for a sin they had committed but rather as an excuse to expel El-Nuqrashi in the company of others, a situation made clear in the pretext offered by El-Nahhas Pasha to justify the cabinet changes, which was, according to what he told the British ambassador, to "provide ministerial harmony."
It is understood why the ousting of El-Nuqrashi led to a veritable earthquake within the ranks of the Wafd Party and why the removal of the other three did not. And yet strangely enough, following his dismissal, minister of justice Mahmoud Ghalib Pasha started a virtual battle. He fired the first salvo in a statement he published in Al-Ahram on 11 August.
Why did he choose the pages of Al-Ahram in particular for launching his attack? Al-Ahram was one of the few newspapers that had held onto its neutrality during the frantic political struggles characteristic of that period. It was well established, and also known for its veracity.
As for the "former minister" Ghalib, it cannot be claimed that he was a leading figure in the nationalist movement. Even his biography is difficult to find in any one dependable source, instead having to be pieced together from fragments here and there. I have thus relied on documents from the British Foreign Office, which put together files on prominent personalities in contemporary Egyptian politics at that time. There he had a file of respectable size filled with documents from the year he resigned, 1937. It included the following:
"Age 56, appointed deputy in the office of the district attorney on 20 February 1904 and gradually rose in the judicial ranks until becoming a judge in the district courts in 1908 and then head of the office of the district attorney in July 1921. Continued to be promoted up the ladder of judicial posts until becoming head of the district courts in 1925.
"Was transferred in 1925 from the judiciary to the Ministry of Justice as director of the administration of district courts. In October of the same year, became judge in the district appellate court. In May 1935, was appointed deputy to the head of the appellate court," none of which indicated that he would have a political future, even though it was known from an early stage that he had Wafdist tendencies.
According to the British Foreign Office reports, he was unable to hold in these tendencies during certain revealing situations such as the case of the bombings during the term of Sidqi in 1932 and another case the previous year of the charging of two Wafdists with stealing documents from the Shaab Party, which had been formed by the prime minister. Ghalib was clearly sympathetic to the accused in both cases, a fact that brought extreme criticism from the appellate court that was reviewing the second case. It appears that he believed he could gain standing with the Wafdists through such behaviour. This was confirmed when he led the judges' movement in protest over British interference in constitutional affairs.
There is no doubt that the British embassy was not pleased with the man. The final document in his file, in addition to mentioning that he was fluent in French and English, noted that his favourite hangout was the Anglo-Egyptian bar, where he "drinks copious amounts of whiskey, making him extremely excitable".
This is the man El-Nahhas Pasha selected as the minister of justice in the cabinet he formed on 10 May 1936, thereby fulfilling the dream of Ghalib, who held the rank of bey at that time. After all he had done to obtain this high post, it was difficult for them to dismiss him from it on the slightest pretext, and thus he fired his first shot.
The beginning of his fiery statement addressed the circumstances under which he was dismissed from the cabinet. He mentioned his meeting with El-Nahhas Pasha the night the new cabinet was formed, and that the leader of the Wafd Party had asserted his confidence in him and his appreciation of his integrity and independence. This had led him to expect being included in the new cabinet, but El-Nahhas surprised him with the opposite. "He spoke frankly to me of the adjustment, which he saw as ensuring homogeneity and harmony, and of the reason for my removal, which was based on my threatening to resign if the Aswan Dam project was implemented in the form presented to the cabinet. So I thanked him and wished him success after warning him of the dangerous consequences of removing El-Nuqrashi Pasha."
It appears that Ghalib Pasha closely considered the issue over the following 10 days, until he decided to launch an attack and penned a statement that detailed the reasons for his opposition to the Aswan project and his threatening to resign. He wrote that the first thing that had brought his attention to the project was the details of the case of Abdullah El-Aziz Ahmed Bey, director of the mechanics and electricity agency, and who the supreme disciplinary court had unanimously declared innocent. The case had begun when the Ministry of Public Works had attempted to retire him with a resolution from the cabinet. According to his lawyer, the reason behind his persecution and the attempt to get rid of him was that he had stood in opposition to this very project when the government had determined to implement it. "In his capacity as the highest expert in his field in Egypt, he produced a report explaining his sincere opinion, which countered the opinion that was desired."
Ghalib Pasha based his opposition to the project on the claim that in its proposed form it clearly violated the law by granting a significant portion to the English Electric Co Ltd without open bidding. He called for the consultation of international experts to obtain their opinion on it and Abdel-Aziz Bey's project. Ghalib also added that during the cabinet meeting to discuss the matter he had the project in his hand and asked Makram Pasha if he had seen it, and he answered in the negative: "And so I said, 'If you read it, might not you be convinced that it is better than the proposed project?'"
The dismissed minister of justice then added that this session had witnessed sharp polarisation, for on the one hand minister of finance Makram Ebeid and the minister of public works Othman Pasha Muharram supported the proposed Aswan project while on the other El-Nuqrashi and Safwat stood by Ghalib Pasha. In the end a vote was taken, with four in line with Ghalib's opinion and six against, causing an internal crisis in the cabinet. Ghalib Pasha detailed it in his published statement: "The president [of the cabinet] asked me, 'Will you resign, so-and-so?' I replied, 'Of course I will resign if the project is implemented in this form.' Then he asked El-Nuqrashi Pasha and Safwat Pasha and they replied that they would resign. Then he asked El-Orabi Pasha, who was the fourth of us, but he didn't see a reason for his resignation."
Ghalib Pasha went on to say that following this session a meeting was held between the dissenters and Makram Pasha to reach a mutually accommodating formulation, which indeed was met. Their solution was to, on the one hand, seek the opinion of international experts rather than just one British expert as the English company had agreed on, then obtain parliament's approval, and, on the other, to protect the reputation of the project submitters before the company and public opinion.
IT APPEARS THAT GHALIB fancied he had brought justice to himself with this statement, which he ended with the words, "despite all considerations, it is my right to defend my honour and the right of the nation to know its servants, as well as to alert it to threats against its interests." Yet it turned out to be only the first maneuver in a war waged on the pages of Al-Ahram.
The very next day Al-Ahram published a response from Makram Ebeid to the statement of "His Excellency the former minister," a response startling and impressive in its swiftness. What was surprising was that such a long response would be so quickly issued under the circumstances of manual typesetting dominant in printing at that time. It appears that officials at Al-Ahram showed the statement to Makram Pasha before it was published so as to give him time to prepare a response. The statement was impressive in that the minister of finance, who was also the general secretary of the Wafd Party, was able to put together this response in such a short time, an effort aided by his eloquence and flow of thought.
In his counter statement, Makram Ebeid focussed on the claim that Ghalib Pasha had committed three grave errors. The first alleged error was that he had permitted himself to publicise the confidential deliberations of the cabinet without its consent: "Thus he betrayed the confidence he had sworn to as a minister and as a responsible gentleman, for revealing these kinds of secrets is prohibited whether by rule of law or by rule of etiquette."
His second alleged grave error was more severe than the first for it went against the grain of truth itself: "Ghalib Pasha did not mention facts as they occurred, but rather distorted some and omitted others entirely." As for his third error, it was "clearly plotting against members of the unified institution," meaning between the Wafd leadership and El-Nuqrashi, all of whom were original Wafd members, while Ghalib Pasha was a newcomer. At the time El-Nuqrashi was still a prominent leader of the Wafd Party, and attempts were being made to appease him and settle the issue. The government offered him membership in the administrative board of the Suez Canal Company as one of the two Egyptians it had been agreed would represent it on the board.
In the eloquent and satirical tone Makram Pasha was known for, he then refuted many of the facts in Ghalib Pasha's statement. He pointed out that the memorandum that had been submitted by Othman Muharram stipulated that the proposed project be presented to international experts and that an agreement had been made with the implementing company to put forth three-quarters of the project in a bidding process while leaving the final quarter to the company without bidding for technical reasons. Finally, he made it clear that the project would not be implemented until after it was presented to parliament and gained its approval.
At the close of his statement, the secretary-general of the Wafd Party addressed the sensitive complexity of the issue: "Ghalib Pasha, once the president [of the cabinet], revealed his intentions, fiercely held on to the necessity of his remaining in the cabinet. And when he wearied of this demand he was overcome with anger! This fury has continued until this day, to the point that he even badmouthed the cabinet he had clung to and insisted that he remain in the post he had enjoyed!"
Yet rather the matter ending on this note, as the readers of Al-Ahram had fancied, the matter would, only two days later resume, the newspaper publishing a second statement by Ghalib Pasha under the title "Revealing the truth to the nation is above all considerations." In its introduction he refuted Makram's accusations that he had committed errors. He did not consider what he had publicised to be political secrets of the state that might cause harm if made known. "The project has been publicised and the newspapers have addressed it and the president [of the cabinet] saw no wrongdoing in frankly informing us and others that the dispute over it and our threatening to resign was the reason for our removal from the cabinet."
He then responded to Makram's claim that he had not told the truth about presenting the project to international experts, stating that it was not in fact as Makram had implied, that he had in fact recommended adding one more expert . He then went on to discuss minute details, some of value and others not. What is significant is that he asserted that Makram Pasha had slandered him when he claimed that he had not presented the complete truth or that he had distorted the truth.
The third alleged grave error Ghalib made effort to refute was the charge that he had flagrantly attempted to drive a wedge between individuals in the unified Wafd Party. The secretary general of the Wafd Party had recommended that Ghalib Pasha not interfere with matters not of his concern and not to wrangle with El-Nuqrashi. In his response, Ghalib noted that he had warned El-Nahhas of the danger to his position and that of the Wafd Party should a man like El-Nuqrashi be sacrificed, a man who had "made many sacrifices and served faithfully."
Then he revealed a secret in his attempt to refute this accusation. Both El-Nuqrashi and Ahmed Maher had been privy to his statement before publishing and had agreed to its contents. He wrote, "unfortunately it appears that I am right and he is wrong, with the proof that El-Nuqrashi Pasha saw my statement before it was published and agreed to its contents, including what I said to the president [of the cabinet]. He visited me in my home before I sent the statement to Al-Ahram, for I felt, as I aspired to truth and accuracy, that I should rely on his memory in confirming the events we had shared in. I showed him the statement and he agreed on everything in it." Matters were made worse when he added that Ahmed Maher had visited him following the publishing of his statement. "I asked him if he had any objections to its contents, particularly that concerning him, and he said, 'of course not'. And thus I sought permission from them both to include their agreement in my response, and they consented."
IN THE HOURS THAT PASSED between the publishing of his response and Ghalib Pasha's counter response, Makram Ebeid immersed himself in preparing what he believed was to be the final word. This took the form of first submitting four documents published by Al-Ahram under the title "The watershed project -- an official report by the Ministry of Finance." This was followed by a lengthy response in Al-Ahram spaced out over three issues which relied, of course, on the previously published report, lending it a stamp of authenticity.
The four documents published in Al-Ahram on 15 August were as follows. The first was a memorandum sent to the cabinet by the Ministry of Public Works with the approval of the Ministry of Finance. The second was a translation of the agreement between the minister of finance and the company representative concerning the mission of official experts from the British government. The third was the text of the budget speech given by the minister of finance to parliament concerning the ministry's policy toward the Aswan Dam watershed project. The fourth and final document published was the unanimous resolution of the cabinet following the retracted resignation of the ministers, i.e., following the previous three documents.
In the first document, the memorandum, the minister of finance addressed the difficulties that faced the El-Nahhas government when it began considering implementation of the project. The first of these stumbling blocks was the costs that rose above that agreed upon in the 1935 project by LE167,000, although the government held to the original estimate and the company agreed. The second hurdle was that the agreement with the previous government had made no mention of the installations being opened up to a bidding process, whereas his ministry had succeeded in reaching an agreement with the company on accepting the principle of open bids except for the project aspects entailing narrow industrial specialisation. The third and final difficulty addressed was the obtaining of the company's agreement to consult an international expert about the reasonability of the shouldered costs, which reached LE1,830,775, and whether the costs estimated for the project components opened to bidding were reasonable.
While the second document did not add anything new, the third document drew attention to the fact that the Wafd government viewed the watershed project to extract silt as a national project the government should have complete control over. Moreover, the government felt that there should also be other industries such as steel, explosives, and paints, which would form a great leap forward for independent Egypt in major industry.
These are the most important points made in the four documents. They were followed by Makram Ebeid's extremely lengthy response published in three segments over 17, 19 and 21 August 1937, in which everything that might, and might not, cross one's mind was addressed.
The first segment of his response opened by accusing Ghalib Pasha of resorting to foolish talk, incitement, a departure from etiquette and honesty, and intimation of the nation's faithful servants. He described the response as an upheaval, from attacking his colleagues to defending himself, although "as much as the attack was long and fierce, the defence was weak and meagre."
He devoted most of this segment to what Ghalib's response had said of Ahmed Maher and El-Nuqrashi. Ebeid accused Ghalib of telling only half the truth about Ahmed Maher and wrote that this manner "is not unheard of for those who practice litigation, but it, regrettably, is not in keeping with the good faith of a lawyer or the dignity of a judge." He also stated that Ahmed Maher is frank in both his animosity and friendship, "so don't claim that he was vague in his position." As for El-Nuqrashi, Ebeid did not deny that there was a difference of opinion but he described it as a "family dispute" and asked Ghalib not to aggravate it further.
Makram Ebeid refuted the former minister of justice's response that the formulation of the three ministers' retracted resignation was meant to guard Ebeid's position and that of the minister of public works from public opinion. He held that they had resigned and then retracted their resignation "not for any other reason than to join their colleagues in this lie or in official lies! What kind of resignation is this? And what kind of retraction?"
In the second segment of his response, Makram Ebeid fell back on the documents Al-Ahram had published. He stressed their congruence, literally and in intent, with the resolution passed by the cabinet, particularly that regarding the addition of two experts to the British government's expert -- Mires and McLellan. He added that the government had reached an agreement with the company for its product to be evaluated by a consulting international expert. As for the disapproving questioning of Ghalib Pasha about the ratification of the agreement with the company before presenting it to parliament, the official documents stated otherwise: "It goes without saying that the project, after being studied completely and meeting its financial stipulations, will be submitted in its entirety to the parliament and will not be implemented unless approved."
Makram Ebeid admitted that he was harsh in the third segment of his response to Ghalib, which was filled with sarcasm and described the former minister of justice's response as laughable and pitiable. The source of laughter, according to Ebeid, was that Ghalib Pasha claimed he had purposely concealed the report from the cabinet when he was the acting minister of finance, which gave the impression that it had been cooked up overnight, whereas it had in fact been the object of study ever since the El-Nahhas cabinet was formed in May 1936 and throughout the following nine months. Then, as Ebeid told it, Ghalib Pasha demanded its postponement after it had been submitted to the economic committee and approved. He concluded this final segment with what he described as simple questions.
He asked if El-Nahhas Pasha and his colleagues were in fact of the qualities ascribed to them, then "what silenced Ghalib Pasha and his colleagues until now?" More than that, he pondered how Ghalib Pasha had allowed himself to actively participate in governance and accountability "with people who are not trustworthy servants of the nation." Finally, he asked why Ghalib Pasha had not announced his resignation from the cabinet "but rather continued to wait until El-Nahhas Pasha began to form his new government? And why did he not discover the threat to the nation's interest until after he was certain that he would not be retained in the new cabinet and subsequently made a fuss over something inconsequential?"
Yet the former minister of justice did not tire of debating with the minister of finance. He prepared another response that he published in Al-Ahram on 22 August. In it, he focused on the position of El-Nuqrashi and Ahmed Maher, taking advantage of the rapid developments that were taking place at that time that suggested the outing of these two prominent leaders from the Wafd Party, and, by implication, from the leadership of El-Nahhas Pasha.
Rather that responding directly to this latest response, Makram Ebeid sufficed with a statement to reporters, and not to Al-Ahram alone. He began his statement with the following words, "There is no longer any need for me to respond to this last statement or any other statement by Ghalib Pasha since the [related] official documents have been published in full. All this discussion of tangible facts has become inappropriate bickering. Just one look at his final statement is enough to inform you that his Grace is speaking, not to say anything new, but so that it can be said that he spoke rather than being silenced."
And thus the secretary-general of the Wafd Party closed the file opened by Ghalib Pasha. In late August everyone became preoccupied with El-Nahhas Pasha's refusal to join the administrative board of the Suez Canal Company after initially accepting. This was revealed in an official statement by the Ministry of Finance, and meant that the prominent Wafd leader had decided to wage war with the leadership of his party. This led to his dismissal from the party, which was followed by the deepest rift in the party's history, but that's another story.